2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Former President, The Royal Society; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, University of Cambridge; Master, Trinity College; Author, From Here to Infinity
President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival

The Energy Challenge

A few years ago, I wrote a short book entitled Our Final Century? I guessed that, taking all risks into account, there was only a 50 percent chance that civilisation would get through to 2100 without a disastrous setback. This seemed to me a far from cheerful conclusion. However, I was surprised by the way my colleagues reacted to the book: many thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and regarded me as an optimist. I stand by this optimism.

There are indeed powerful grounds for being a techno-optimist. . For most people in most nations, there's never been a better time to be alive. The innovations that will drive economic advance —information technology, biotech and nanotech—can boost the developing as well as the developed world. We're becoming embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the world's information and culture—and to every other person on the planet. Creativity in science and the arts is open to hugely more than in the past. 21st century technologies will offer lifestyles that are environmentally benign—involving lower demands on energy or resources than what we'd consider a good life today. And we could readily raise the funds - were there the political will—to lift the world's two billion most deprived people from their extreme poverty.

Later in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and 'cyberg' techniques may change human beings themselves. That's something qualitatively new in recorded history—and it will pose novel ethical conundrums. Our species could be transformed and diversified (here on Earth and perhaps beyond) within just a few centuries.

The benefits of earlier technology weren't achieved without taking risks—we owe modern aviation, and modern surgery, to many martyrs. But, though plane crashes, boiler explosions and the like were horrible, there was a limit to just how horrible —a limit to their scale. In our ever more interconnected world, where technology empowers us more than ever, we're vulnerable to scary new risks—events of such catastrophic global consequences that it's imprudent to ignore them even if their probabililty seems low.

One set of risks stems from humanity's collective impact. Our actions are transforming, even ravaging, the entire biosphere —perhaps irreversibly—through global warming and loss of biodiversity. Remedial action may come too late to prevent 'runaway' climatic or environmental devastation.

But we also face vulnerabilities of a quite different kind, stemming from unintended consequences (or intended misuse) of ever more empowering bio and cyber technology. The global village will have its village idiots.

The risks are real. But, by making the right collective choices we can alleviate all these hazards.

Among such choices, my number-one priority would be much-expanded R and D into a whole raft of techniques for storing energy and generating it by 'clean' or low-carbon methods. The stakes are high—the world spends nearly 3 trillion dollars per year on energy and its infrastructure. This effort can engage not just those in privileged technical envonments in advanced countries, but a far wider talent pool Even if we discount climate change completely, the quest for clean energy is worthwhile on grounds of energy security, diversity and efficiency.

This goal deserve a priority and commitment from governments akin to that accorded to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing. It should appeal to the idealistic young—indeed I can't think of anything that could do more to attract the brightest and best of them into science than a strongly proclaimed commitment, from all technologically-developed nations, to take a lead in providing clean and sustainable energy for the developing and the developed world.